Oscar Wilde

by W. B. Yeats, from his Autobiography

My first meeting with Oscar Wilde was an astonishment. I never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them all over night with labour and yet all spontaneous. There was present that night at [the poet William Ernest] Henley's, by right of propinquity or of accident, a man full of the secret spite of dullness, who interrupted from time to time, and always to check or disorder thought; and I noticed with what mastery he was foiled and thrown. I noticed, too, that the impression of artificiality that I think all Wilde's listeners have recorded came from the perfect rounding of the sentences and from the deliberation that made it possible. . . . That first night he praised Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance: `It is my golden book; I never travel anywhere without it; but it is the very flower of decadence: the last trumpet should have sounded the moment it was written.' `But,' said the dull man, would you not have given us time to read it?' `Oh no,' was the retort, `there would have been plenty of time afterwards--in either world.' I think he seemed to us, baffled as we were by youth, or by infirmity, a triumphant figure, and to some of us a figure from another age, an audacious Italian fifteenth-century figure.

A few weeks before I had heard one of my father's friends, an official in a publishing firm that had employed both Wilde and Henley as editors, blaming Henley who was `no use except under control' and praising Wilde, `so indolent but such a genius'; and now the firm became the topic of our talk. `How often do you go to the office?' said Henley. `I used to go three times a week,' said Wilde, `for an hour a day but I have since struck off one of the days.' `My God,' said Henley, `I went five times a week for five hours a day and when I wanted to strike off a day they had a special committee meeting.' `Furthermore,' was Wilde's answer, `I never answered their letters . . . .' He too knew how to keep our elders in their place, and his method was plainly the more successful, for Henley had been dismissed. `No he is not an aesthete,' Henley commented later . . . `one soon finds that he is a scholar and a gentleman.' And when I dined with Wilde a few days afterwards he began at once, `I had to strain every nerve to equal that man at all'; and I was too loyal to speak my thought: `You and not he said all the brilliant things.' He like the rest of us had felt the strain of an intensity that seemed to hold life at the point of drama. He had said on that first meeting that `The basis of literary friendship is mixing the poisoned bowl'; and for a few weeks Henley and he became close friends till, the astonishment of their meeting over, diversity of character and ambition pulled them apart, and, with half the cavern helping, Henley began mixing the poisoned bowl for Wilde. Yet Henley never wholly lost that first admiration, for after Wilde's downfall he said to me: `Why did he do it? I told my lads to attack him and yet we might have fought under his banner.'"